My first encounter with this unique band came on a hazy June evening within the glorious space of the Exeter Phoenix. The experience has stayed with me ever since, nagging at the edges of my conscience and prickling the contours of my soul. I can’t figure out exactly why, but I know the reasons are real, sound and come concocted into a holy mixture of diverse elements from many of my favourite artists over the last 20 years or so….
This EP has taken some time in the making; you might even label it a pure labour of love. Yet isn’t this how music should come about, without losing its essence and purity? Being explicit about your ambition, your desire to create something beyond the ephemeral, to rise like Lazarus from the indie slagheap and polish the dusty diamonds of your imagination into new shapes, prisms and deliberate agitation of the often stifling mainstream? Well, Stella Martyr are the antidote to that incessant creep which infects originality and the chance to dare, to dream, to take risks with your hearts.
‘Jungfrau’ crashes in like a shifting wave of snowflakes cascading through the evergreen treeline, looking for solace whilst trying to encapsulate the blinding vastness of this crazy world. I see/hear mountains, cliff faces, waterfalls, clear blue forms in the sky and somewhere in between. It develops urgently, grabbing you by the lapels, forcing its personality upon you, driven forward by a wall of processed synths, plaintive guitar chords and a clipped, yet insistent drumbeat. Shades of Mark E Smith (but more polite) interweave with the echoing refrains and the widescreen starts to explode in slow motion replays.
The themes expand with the deathlesslybeautiful ‘Concrete Kisses’, a song bleeding honesty and confusion, overflowing with images redolent of that last hangover, not being heard, emotions stuck, love’s dream thwarted. Again, those guitars ring true and clear, clarions, leaping gracefully into an elegant chorus (‘I wish I’d found a way to talk to you / Not involving the use of words’) that beats melancholia up against the wall in the early morning downpour. I just love the way that chorus returns, like a warm embrace. It stays and will come back again.
Track three imbues the EP with Eastern bloc mystery and I’m floating in a post-Joy Division pre-New Order bubble, waiting for destiny to fulfil itself. Meantime, the music becomes scabrous, the cold war politics caught up in the tightly coiled riffs and artificial drum kicks. The resolutely downbeat nature of this song does not detract from its simple power and worldliness.
As the songs merge and meld, the pinnacles are scaled magnificently with the subtle introduction of Annie Rew-Shaw on ‘Immortals’. Her imploring siren’s call mixes perfectly with Sketch’s deadpan delivery, deadly serious in its poetic intent. The music builds to a sustained crescendo, multi-layered vocals heightening the overwhelming sense of isolation.
Nowt better than leaving your very best to last. ‘Sugar’ is six pulsating minutes of divine intervention, at the point of conception, a little miracle of a song. It builds slowly, its soaring levels expanding ever outward, its genius elevated by the Shakespearean tragedy of the constant refrain – ‘Cut me out in little stars and see my reflection.’
Annie’s vocals are the fulcrum, their singular beauty turning the greys and blacks of these November nights into hazy purples, rubicon-reflecting reds and soothing yellows. The chorus eventually tails off, leaving the stars clinging on in its wake.
I couldn’t care less if this makes you want to buy it. This is music that makes me want to write poetry and reach for the stars. It's what pop is actually about. You’ll find a way, I’m sure. For now, just be grateful that Stella Martyr exist.